Characteristics of an Abusive Relationship




This article is designed to help individuals determine if they or someone they know may be in an abusive relationship.


Identifying the signs of an abusive relationship early on are important, but it is never too late to get help. It can be difficult to recognize whether or not one is in an abusive relationship. Abuse may not define the nature of all of your interactions but that does not make the consequences less severe when abuse does occur. While psychological abuse can be much more difficult to identify than physical abuse, it can still have a lasting and damaging effect on the survivors. Individuals experiencing verbal and psychological abuse may not feel as though they are in danger, however, many abusive relationships quickly escalate to higher levels of severity.1 For this reason it is best to be able identify the characteristics of an abusive relationship early on.

The relationship may be abusive if one of the partners:

  • Withholds affection or approval as a form of punishment.
  • Criticizes and shouts at their partner, or calls them mean, negative, and hurtful names.
  • Ignores their partner's feelings and insults their beliefs, ideas, and/or values.
  • Lies to their partner to manipulate and control their thoughts.
  • Insists their partner look a certain way.
  • Humiliates their partner in public.
  • Keeps their partner from seeing and having contact with friends and family.
  • Prevents their partner from communicating with others or restricts their means of communication, such as taking away their phone or computer.
  • Withholds resources such as money or transportation.
  • Makes their partner feel guilty if they spend time with other people, thereby isolating them.
  • Puts their partner in dangerous situations, such as driving recklessly, driving under the influence, or abandoning them.
  • Displays violent and threatening behavior, like throwing objects, or hitting, punching, or slapping their partner.
  • Locks their partner out of the house, or traps them in a room.
  • Rapes or sexually assaults their partner, or threatens to do so.
  • Threatens to commit suicide if their partners leaves or confide in someone about the abuse they are facing.
  • Threatens to hurt their partner or their loved ones, including themselves.
  • Threatens to kill their partner if they leave or confide in someone about the abuse they are facing.

A person may also be in an abusive relationship if they:

  1. Experience fear in their partner's presence, or fear of what they may do to them.
  2. Want to leave the relationship but feel as though they cannot.
  3. Believe they deserve to be harmed or punished by their partner.
  4. Feel guilty or feel like everything is their fault.
  5. Are afraid of being alone with their partner.

If any of these characteristics fit your relationship or a friend’s relationship, please read the What To Do If You Are Being Abused article and visit the Domestic Violence Hotline page.2 We encourage you to alert someone of the abuse as early as possible.

Abuse in a relationship often follows a cyclical pattern in which there are multiple stages. This cycle is what allows survivors to feel as though things are just getting better before their partner returns to abusing them again.3 The three main phases are the tension building phase, the incident phase, and the reconciliation phase.4 The three phases are described below:

1. Tension Building Phase: This phase is the longest of the three.  The perpetrator may consistently be in a negative mood and commit minor assaults, damages to property, or make threats.  The survivor will appease the perpetrator through any of the following: satisfying his needs, calming him down, or avoiding confrontation.4

 2. The Incident Phase: This phase consists of the actual abuse that takes place in the relationship.  It is the shortest of the three, lasting usually no longer than a day.  It is common during this phase for the abuser to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  Even when they become violent, these outbursts are not intended to be hidden from present children. Unfortunately, the perpetrator many times will not suffer repercussions for his behavior and is able to maintain his relationship with the survivor because of the third phase.4

 3. The Reconciliation Phase: In this phase, the batterer declares his love for the survivor, apologizing and promising to never again be abusive; he may claim he will take other actions that contribute to his violent behavior, such as quitting drinking.  He will buy the survivor gifts and shower her with attention until she is once again happy and forgives him.  If the police were involved, the survivor may stop the investigation and attempt to get the charges dropped by lying about her injuries or the events that took place. This phase is sometimes followed by a period of "calm" in which the relationship may appear to be improving before the initiation of the next tension building phase.4

It is important to note that not all relationships will fit this pattern. However, if you or somebody you know are experiencing this pattern in a relationship it is important to recognize the signs as early as possible and immediately get help.




1. "Domestic Violence and Abuse." Web. 18 May 2016.

2. "Domestic Violence and Abuse." Web. 18 May 2016.

3. "What Keeps People in Abusive Relationships." Emerge Center. Web. 31 May 2016.

4. "Cycle of Abuse." Emerge Center. Web. 31 May 2016.


Last Updated 30 May 2016.